Video Killed the Football Star?

cameraman2The Club World Cup this past week included the first official FIFA use of video replay, decisively so in the first semifinal between Colombia’s Atlético Nacional and Japan’s Kashima Antlers. In fact, both semifinals gave serious food for thought on the introduction of video replay to football more generally.

I should say at the outset that I am generally in favor of video replay. As an American, I am used to taking my sports with replay, mostly without disastrous consequence; and also (of necessity) primarily a television consumer of football, which makes abundantly clear how large the scope is for reduction of human error via video support.

From this vantage point, a lot of the arguments against video replay sound like excuses for reactionary traditionalism. For instance, “Video replay won’t eliminate disagreement, so what’s the point?” Indeed, why try to get any calls right at all, knowing that some may still remain controversial? The same logic would encourage abandoning refereeing altogether. Surely trying to eliminate some error where possible is better than throwing up our hands, as if nothing can be done. The inevitability of error is true enough, but ultimately irrelevant to the question of whether to adopt technology in order to reduce the scope of that error.

The same is true for claims that the drama of football is enriched by the “talking points” of poor refereeing. This is really just the same argument dressed up in different language. Since error will continue to exist with video replay, so will talking points. Referees are just as hated and fallible in sports which use replay, it’s merely the scope of their fallibility which is reduced. As ESPN programming for US-based sports amply demonstrates, those eager for schoolboy debates need not fear for a lack of talking points despite video replay.

The more serious arguments, I think, come not from these canards about the inevitability or desirability of error, but rather from how the implementation of technology might alter the rhythm of the game. Here, the implications of US sports for football are less clear. While I have never heard any fan pining for the days of gross error, there is no doubt that expanding the scope of video replay often comes at a cost of increased interruption and delay. Even fans of interruption-rich sports like gridiron football and basketball can be heard to complain about some of the recent expansions of video replay within their sports (though not very often, it must be said, of its introduction altogether). Given the greater fluidity of football, the danger of disruption that video replay potentially represents is that much greater.

On the other hand, smooth implementation usually leads to quick adoption. Tennis fans, for instance, rarely complain about the hawk-eye technology for line calls. The successful introduction of essentially the same system as goal-line technology in football has produced similar results. Even at this early stage, no reasonable skeptics remain. Those who grumble about it being the slippery slope to further video replay sound like the luddites they are.

FIFA’s video protocol in operation at the Club World Cup, wisely, focused on key moments that already involve stoppage of play: 1) reviewing the build-up to goals for offsides or missed fouls/penalties, 2) the awarding of penalties, 3) decisions regarding the issuing of yellow or red cards, and 4) cases of mistaken identity in the issuing of cards.  All of these seem key decisions, and one’s that should allow for a smooth introduction of video replay.

But the reality of the Club World Cup demonstrates how much work remains for a smooth introduction. The video below shows the game-winning penalty awarded by video replay to Kashima Antlers about 30 minutes into their semifinal victory over Atlético Nacional (it was the opening goal, and the only one for most of the game).

As the in-game replay near the end of this video makes clear, there can be no doubt that the penalty given was the correct decision (or at any rate, would have been the correct decision had it been awarded initially). Orlando Berrío clearly trips Yasushi Endo as he is running toward the far post where the free kick is about to be delivered (you can see his teammate jumping for the ball right before the replay ends). The problem comes both in terms of the time elapsed between event and call, as well as the communication both to players and spectators. As this second video pointedly demonstrates, a full two minutes elapse between the foul and the award of the penalty.

As the video also shows, it is a confusing period even for those of us watching on TV. The fact that it takes referee Viktor Kassai another 2 minutes of explaining the call to set up the penalty kick further underlines that confusion–as do the despairing shots of Atlético Nacional fans, denied the explanation provided to players and the television audience.

Even the most adamant advocate of video replay would have to acknowledge that this was not a smooth process. Even worse (if less consequential) was the brief video intervention into the Real Madrid-Club América semifinal, where referee Enrique Cáceres first called off a goal he had awarded, only to re-award it moments later. That was probably just a misunderstanding, where Cáceres took an indication that a video replay was underway for an overruling of the onfield decision that Cristiano Ronaldo was onside. But the difficulties created by the earlier replay are less easily explained away, even if Kashima were eventually awarded a penalty they quite manifestly deserved.

The experience of the Club World Cup suggests at least three important lessons for those, like myself, still convinced that video replay will ultimately improve the game (there were no doubt other lessons for those involved in the actual refereeing of the tournament).

1) At least initially, video review protocols should be limited to correcting events that have led to a stoppage in play. Goals create a natural pause that will, properly handled (unlike in the Real-América game), allow time for a graceful review. So, too, the awarding of penalties or a card. The nature of the protocols themselves suggest that they were intended to be used only in these cases. By choosing to review whether or not Kassai should have given an unawarded penalty, the video review required its own stoppage of play–well after the event itself. Though the correct call was made, a better protocol would be to review infield decisions rather than to intervene independently into the game. Though it may mean that some penalties or cards go unissued, it will ensure that the game does not end up awash in stoppages.

2) Communication protocols, both between video and infield referees, and between referees and players, need to be significantly clarified to minimize infield confusion. Likewise, delivering these explanations to television commentators will help reduce initial confusion for TV audiences. Though some confusion is to be expected with any new set of rules or procedures, there is clearly still work to be done before these procedures are ready for full introduction into regular play.

3) Keeping video replay in the booth and on television alone probably won’t work. At least in the case of reviewed plays, confirming videos must be shown within stadiums in order both to communicate the nature of decisions to the fans and to persuade them of the value of video replay. This point may seem confusing to those unaware that the general in-stadium solution to the fallibility of referees is a refusal to show in-game replays. But this head-in-the-sand approach cannot be maintained without undermining in-stadium support for video replay. Though videos will not convince every fan (they never do), fans will never accept video decisions (at least not those that go against their own team) without seeing the evidence. Nor should they have to, frankly. Transparency, in refereeing as in all other forms of governance, is essential to ensuring genuine respect for its institutions.

UPDATE: It’s unclear whether or not video replay was involved in the bizarre now-it-is-now-it-isn’t second yellow card non-call against Sergio Ramos in the 90′ of Real Madrid’s final against Kashima Antlers. It’s possible that referee Janny Sikazwe was overruled by a video replay decision, but the in-game replays certainly didn’t support that ruling, and Sikazwe never made the box-shaped hand gesture to indicate a video replay (nor did he go to observe any footage). More likely, this was old-fashioned poor refereeing, unaided by video replay.

Why this decision wasn’t corrected in the same manner as the Kashima Antlers points out the potential for abuse in an ill-defined protocol that does not clearly articulate when video replay will and will not be used. Either the Kashima penalty should not have been awarded (because there was no call made that would allow for the use of video replay) or this non-card should have been corrected (since the awarding of cards was included among the decisions open to video review). This is another reason why clearly limiting video replay to the correction of on-field actions would at least help clear up confusion–if not, in this case, allowing to actually correct a glaring error.

If you want to see how glaring, here’s a nice video of the incident. Stick around to the end for a chance to see Ramos making fun of the referee’s non-call after the game. (And hat tip to The Howler’s Dirty Tackle blog for bringing this video to my attention.)

It’s perhaps worth adding that notwithstanding these video replay gaffs, the Club World Cup produced some very enjoyable football. As the first AFC team to reach the finals, Kashima Antlers were well organized in the best sense of the term, giving both Atlético Nacional and Real Madrid reasonable counter-attacking games in a style not unlike Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid. Club América, too, proved interesting opponents to Real Madrid. Under manager Ricardo La Volpe–one of Pep Guardiola’s inspirations–América now return to Mexico for the two-legged Liga MX Apertura play-off final against Tigres UANL of Monterrey with the return leg scheduled for Christmas day. The similarities to Guardiola could be seen in América’s idiosyncratic formation against Madrid and produced an exciting game. You should definitely consider watching this final between what are probably the two best club sides in North America at the moment.

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